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SNEWS TV: Meet Keen's lead innovator Rory Fuerst Jr.

In this episode, we chat with the innovator behind Keen's new Uneek shoe and what it takes to go against the norm.

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We have a special SNEWS TV episode today as we visit with Keen Footwear lead innovator Rory Feurst, Jr.


Feurst and the Keen crew were in Denver to show off the brand’s new Uneek shoe to local specialty retailers. The footwear takes a ‘unique’ approach with rope rather than flat material being used to create the shoe’s upper. It all leads to a more custom fit and very different kind of shoe.

The event was held at Joyride Brewing, where SNEWS chatted with Feurst over some beers on his philosophy on not always following the beaten path and what it takes to develop a product that is unlike the norm.

Check out the video, and then read the entire transcript of our extended conversation below.

Randy Propster, sales and marketing director, SNEWS/O.R. Daily: I’m with Rory Fuerst Jr. from Keen who has the coolest job title that I think I have ever heard: Innovation Program Lead. We’re going to get a little more into that, but to get started we should probably introduce the fact that we’re standing in Joyride Brewing Company, which is pretty unconventional to be talking about shoes, but that’s going to be the theme I have a feeling.

So as an Innovation Program Lead, the first question I have to ask is: Do you consider yourself a rebel? I mean, when you’re talking about innovating, you’re talking about unconventional, you’re always going against the grain, aren’t you?

Rory Fuerst, Jr., innovation program lead, Keen Footwear: I wouldn’t call myself a rebel, I think its more like a creative curiosity. I think there’s some rebelliousness in it, but I think there’s far more rebellion from my high school years than there is from the shoe-making side of things. But there’s definitely the constant push to be disruptive.

Randy: To be disruptive — and really that’s what Keen has done — I want you to introduce us to your latest product, a very unique product, the Keen Uneek shoe, which took four years to develop. What was the driving force and challenge behind a shoe like this?

Rory: It was kind of a cool thing because Keen requested breakthrough fit — there was this wide-open brief. At the same time our group (I was working in a separate innovation group) was working on a new way footwear is made and looking at the footwear industry as a whole, and we said: “Well, the industry works, but that doesn’t mean its OK.” So we just experimented with this crazy idea of redefining the manufacturing of footwear. So we made this gut decision to put all our eggs in the crazy basket and we went that way.

Randy: Fantastic. And when you talk about reinventing that manufacturing process, this is a product that less is more in a lot of ways, right? In that you basically stripped it down. I think I heard it described — the product we’re talking about, the Keen Uneek — as simple meets sophisticated, right? In a way you said “Look, we’re going to get rid of all the materials we used to mess with, we’re going to get rid of all the manufacturing processes, we’re going to do it our own way. So tell me a little bit about that mindset as an innovator.

Rory: Yeah, we started with the foot and if you look at the way shoes are made and how the foot is built, it’s counter-intuitive. So the foot’s this concave, convex, three-demensional shape. And most footwear materials are flat pieces. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because it’s hard to wrap flat things around three-dimensional shapes.

So our whole thing was this idea of strings versus sheets. Rather than using big pieces of material — sheets — we were going to use strings. It comes down to the fact that you’re breaking the surface material and taking all the material back to a very small diameter on a very broad surface, so you’re able to contour to the whole thing. So that was the beginning of it.

Randy: When in the process do you decide “You know what? This is not a gimmick. The first model you came up with, if this is a four-year process, probably didn’t make the cut. Where did it start, and where has it come to?

Rory: So, I have it here. [holding up an intricate web of string pinned to a shoe last] It all started here and this was the first — we’d talk and think a lot in our job, we’re like theoretical people — but sometimes you have to put it to real life. I built this at my desk just in our office over the span of three days and as I did it, that’s when the light bulb went off. There were certain areas of the shoe where it fit really well — that in normal shoemaking, there’s always an issue — it was happening fluidly here. And that was the moment when the idea of 3-D conformity came about, it came to fruition. And then it was a matter of going from the artwork to the real thing.

Randy: It does look like artwork.

Rory: Yeah. Then it started this crazy process of, let’s just keep reiterating and reiterating … there was a lot of … [holding up a messy jumble of string in roughly a shoe shape] … this is kind of my come-back-to-earth moment, because I think whenever you start something like that, you’re super fired up and psyched, like this is going to be awesome, we’re going to change the world. And then reality sets in and this was like my reality settling in moment.

Randy: I can see where that would be a bit of an ego check, right?

Rory: Yeah and it was a check for everyone around us, but the thing that we learned was that the two-cord construction was going to be the key and that’s because with one cord, you have to fix it in two places, otherwise its just floating in space. But when you fix one cord in two places, it goes from a three-dimensional realm to 2-D. And your foot’s got to move in a three-dimensional realm. So the two-cord construction, which you really can see best over here, where the grey cord meets the blue cord, that was really the magic ‘A-ha’ moment. And then it was just a matter of: “We’re going to make it this way, now we’re going to figure out how to make it and do it thousands and thousands of times.”

Randy: All right, so if I’m in a room for four years and I’m working on a project, there are times where you’re just banging your head on the wall and you’re like: this is just not working. Give me that moment: “We started down this path and I hit a roadblock.”

Rory: We had a big one of those and it was really far down the line. Early on, we did all the prototyping in our office in Portland, Ore., so whenever we ran into trouble, we’d just go to Ace Hardware or the fabric supplier and it was very grassroots innovation. We had a thing where we were trying to get a cord to stick to the sole. We had tried all these options … one we had tried was where we actually pull all the loops through and then we run another cord through it and then pull it back on itself. We were just using the same cord and what was happening was these loops were pulling out. So we asked ourselves: “What’s the same size cord but super strong? And someone said: “weed whacker!” So, we went to Ace and got weed whacker and it worked phenomenally, we felt like super geniuses! And so we kept it in the shoe and even way down the line, we were specking in weed whacker yellow, weed whacker red, and it just stayed in the shoe. Once we went into mass production, we started testing the mass production samples, and we got probably 50 pairs back. We gave them out on a Friday. On Wednesday morning, I got 18 calls in the span of an hour, and everyone was saying “My shoes are squeaking, my shoes are squeaking and that’s — in the footwear world, squeaking — is the death of you. So we went into crisis mode and got all of our best people around. We came up with what felt like a million reasons with what could have been causing it. And finally someone said: “Well what about the weed whacker?” We’d just been using it because it was available at Ace. So sure enough, this little thing that we’d specked in to solve this little problem a lot earlier was coming back to bite us in the butt in the end. Once we’d figured it out it was a quick fix, but a lot of the options of what was wrong would have been way, way worse. We thought it was tooling or the hopper cord, so it ended well, but it was a huge, crazy thing and again a byproduct of the process.

Randy: A squeaky weed whacker. That’s fantastic, just the process of innovation is amazing. So, you’re making the changes, you’re getting rid of the weed whacker cord, you’re doing all of the things that need to be done there, but are there times when you’re getting pushback, when you’re getting “You know what? There’s an easier way to do it and we’re already doing it. We’ve been making shoes a long time.” So when do you say: “No, we’re changing it because we know it can be better.”

Rory: I think the innovation process at one point is being rebellious in situations like that. Whether it be from internal forces in the company or the factory side or wherever, there’s always people telling you “no.” One big thing when we went to make the shoes in mass production was at the factory level, they wanted to kind of cut corners and you know, stitch something here or lock something there. The whole thing was this free motion idea, and we were to the point where we were stubborn — the things we were saying no to — but it was that long term vision of saying “If we don’t do it this way, its pointless. We’re going to stick to that ultimate goal.” And that’s where its like, people look at you like you’re crazy, its not that big of a deal to put one stitch there, but when you start saying “yes” to all those things where you should be saying “no,” you do 10, 15, 20 of those and all of a sudden you find yourself back to where you started: making normal shoes. So I think if there’s one part where innovation becomes massively rebellious, its when you literally start telling these people with massive amounts of knowledge and years and years of experience that you really don’t care what they say. And you’d rather fail and find out what happens than listen to them.

Randy: I told you he was a rebel. We knew there was a rebel hiding in there! When you go against the grain, how do you make sure when you bring this thing to market that its going to be well-received? Obviously, there’s some testing that goes on. There’s a process, so give me a little insight into how the user was involved to get this product to where it is now.

Rory: We did huge amounts of testing. When you talk about that four years, there’s a lot of time built in there that was purely testing. And we learned and we failed a ton. At one point, we were literally opening molds and just tossing them out, because they just weren’t working. We had made a mistake or overestimated or underestimated something. So there was a ton of testing and we probably went through five real iterations — everything from the cord positioning on the foot, the materials we were using in different areas, the0 actual tooling and design … We went through a ton of stuff, trying to get it absolutely perfect. The one thing that was the light at the end of the tunnel was that people kept saying that same thing, “when you put it on, it feels like you’ve got nothing on your foot.” And we knew if we could carry that through the process and not ruin that, then we were probably going to be OK.

Randy: So now you get the consumer feedback, they say “We love it, feels good, we don’t even know it’s on my foot.” Next step? Getting retailers involved, and I’m starting to see the brewery fill up around us here. So you decid we don’t need to go to the retailer, we’ll go to the bar, we’ll invite all these guys to the bar, and we’ll talk about shoes. So tell me a little bit about that thought process. How does Keen put their mind around that? Let’s do this at the brewery?

Rory: We’re from Portland, Ore., so breweries are pretty much in our blood. But Keen’s just a brand that embraces being different and, for us, I think that is why being unique has been so successful for us and will be so successful out in the real world. We’re all about trying to do things differently, putting ourselves out there and risking it. I mean, a lot of people said Uneek would bomb and fail and cut your feet and do all this. But the brand side of it … no one inside the brand ever internally said “no” because they knew it was disruptive and it was different; it was something that maybe the industry needed or maybe consumers needed. They needed a different look on things. For us, like in a design group, it got to the point where part of the inspiration was “well, if we can do this, even if we fail, at least maybe people will look at things differently. So that was always at the back of our minds, because at some point, you get so far down the road, you’re like “is this ever going to end?” Sales sometimes is strong enough to carry you out of that, it’s more of a bigger inspiration.

Randy: I love it, unconventional guy, unconventional product, unconventional question, maybe? I give you the keys to the castle. Now you have all the money in the world, what’s 10 years down the line? Where are you going to go hole up? What are you making? What’s going on in here that’s going to say “we started changing the way things work with this shoe, what’s the evolution of that process?

Rory: I think in general, and I don’t want to make it a bigger thing and take it to the humanity level, but I think the shoe industry and all industries are going to need to be smarter about the way they do things. I think Uneek is a good example and there’s a lot of good stuff happening in footwear right now where people are starting to look at better ways of making product and thinking about things like carbon offsets and transportation. I don’t know what will happen, but what I’d like to see is people being just a bit more thoughtful in what they’re doing.

Randy: So let’s throw that challenge out there. Keen’s doing it, the rest of the industry needs to do it. We want to see you be innovative, but we want to see you be thoughtful, be thinking about humanity, right? We’ve got to protect us, we’ve got to make footwear that’s cool, that’s unique, but we also got to be sure we’re doing it in the right way. So we’re putting that challenge out there to the outdoor industry, you hear that? Right here, Rory’s saying it and he’s the guy that has the title Innovation Program Lead. I can’t get over that; that’s got to be the coolest job title ever. Did you make that up?

Rory: Yes!

Randy: Even better, I want to be that guy when I grow up. Rory, thank you so much. We really appreciate your time. We’re excited to be here tonight, we’re excited to be a part of this event, can’t wait to see more of your presentation tonight, hang out with a bunch of these retailers. Just keep being unique in and of yourself and keep innovating, man, we appreciate it.

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